With ripped-open legs, finishing dynos, a defeated world champion, and the youngest U.S. athlete to make it to semis in an ice climbing World Cup, the Ice Climbing World Cup in Denver was one for the books.
This past weekend, February 23-24, the best mixed climbers from around the world gathered at Civic Center Park in downtown Denver for the UIAA Ice Climbing World Cup finals, the last stop in a six-event season . A total of 38 men and 26 women competed in the speed and lead competitions.
The only World Cup to be held in the United States this year, and the first ever in Denver, this final stop on the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation / Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme) tour was organized by the American Alpine Club. The centerpiece of the event was a wild free-standing competition wall built by Eldorado Climbing Walls. Hold-studded overhanging plywood walls led up to a wide central roof or scaffolding hung with wooden cubes and hexagonals seemingly floating in mid-air. Athletes had to contort, fight, reach and dance their way horizontally and upward.
Some unique obstacles unrelated to the wall presented themselves as well. Some athletes were unable to attend the event because they couldn’t get American visas, one athlete brought no tools and had to borrow someone else’s, and two athletes punched holes in their bodies with their ice axes during the speed competition.
On Saturday morning, climbers competed in qualifying rounds for both men and women’s lead. Women had four-and-a-half minutes to complete the route, and men had four minutes. If they fell before the second clip, they were allowed a second try.
After his climb, Tyler Kempney of the U.S. said, “This is probably the coolest route I’ll climb on this year”—high praise considering Kempney already competed in World Cups in Switzerland, Italy and France this season. “The setting will create separation among the athletes, because people will fall in different places.”
Out of 35 men and 24 women in lead, 18 of each gender went on to semi-finals.
The semis on Sunday ratcheted up the difficulty, and with no merciful second tries allowed. Athletes figure-foured with axes in their mouths, precariously yet precisely placing their tools on minuscule holds on the overhung walls and swinging volumes. The approximately 11,000 (according to announcers, and the number was later upped) audience members—most of whom had never even heard of ice climbing—ooh-ed and ah-ed with delight at the acrobatics.
“Competing in America is great,” said Nikolay Primerov of Switzerland after climbing. “If you fall, they cheer. If you make it, they cheer. They cheer for everything!”
Highlights from semis included Catalina “Cat” Shirley, 16, becoming the youngest U.S. athlete to make semifinals in a World Cup ice comp. But among the personal successes were frustrations, too. The Russian climber Dmitriy Grebennikov was disqualified for skipping the fourth clip, and the Dutch climber Marianne van der Steen, a known name going in, fell at just the fourth clip. Van der Steen, along with two other female athletes, filed complaints (though unsuccessful) with the UIAA saying their falls resulted from holds breaking.
Three women—Maria Tolokonina (RUS), Woonseon Shin (KOR) and Eimir McSwiggen (IRL)—completed the semis routes, while the defending World Champion (World Championships are held separately from the World Cup, and only every other year) Park Heeyong climbed highest among the men. Two fields of eight proceeded to finals, with Gord McArthur (CAN) just out of finals, in ninth place. Throngs of spectators watched the event, while many also played in a nearby ice maze, tried their hand at axe throwing, and enjoyed live music and food trucks.
Finals drew tightly packed crowds to watch the insane routes, graded M15 for men and M13 for women. Women had eight-and-half minutes and men eight minutes to do battle with the finals routes. When one woman finalist fell off at just the third hold, it was obvious that this route was mean. Some climbers shook out on single holds for minutes at a time, trying to clip or swing just right in order to hook the next hold. Several athletes timed out still hanging and figure-fouring.
Woonseon Shin timed out on the second-to-last clip, looked back at the roaring crowd and decided to go for it anyway. She squared up, looked at the far-off finish hold, and jumped. She stuck the dyno; the crowd went wild. Maria Tolokonina, first overall in the standings, went last. She climbed fast, reaching the dyno far ahead of Woonsion’s pace. Tolokonina jumped, catching but not sticking the hold.
Woonsion and Tolokonina tied for first (since Woonsion topped out after her time finished), but Tolokonina took home the gold based on a better performance in semis. Tolokonina now has 65 World Cup medals to her name. Eimir McSwiggan of Ireland came in third.
In the men’s lead finals, Yannick Glatthard of Switzerland—who won the lead competition in Saas-Fee a month ago—was the second athlete to compete, but topped the route! With two dynos and some serious acrobatics, Glatthard climbed to the top, stood on the hanging octagon, pulled out four armlengths of slack in his rope, and took the mother of all victory whips.
Nikolai Kusolev, who had won four out of the season’s five previous World Cups and already clinched the overall title, was the second and only other man to top the route. Glatthard and Kusolev placed first and second, respectively, and Park Heeyong came in third.
For the speed competition on Saturday evening, workers labored for four days leading up to the competition. They watered a horizontal panel on the ground, and the day before the World Cup, raised it with heavy machinery to create a vertical 40-foot wall, about six inches thick, cooled from a grid within.
Climbers quickly chkchkchk’ed their way up the wall, moving like super-spiders and picking out the ice with specialized ice tools that look much like meathooks.
For the women, Maria Tolokonina took home yet another gold, followed by Coralie Jary of France in second, and Marion Thomas of France in third.
The men’s comp had theatrics of a different sort. Unlike speed climbing on rock, speed ice climbing carries a few special dangers: namely the axe in each hand as an athlete flies up the wall. Two climbers—Marcus Garcia of the U.S. and David Bouffard of Canada—paid a price. Garcia punctured his thigh in semi-finals. Still, he went on to compete in finals, where he stabbed himself again, this time in the arm. Bouffard put a hole in his thigh—about an inch above his knee pad—so deep that he had to go to the hospital. The next day he said, with his French accent, “I actually have nine other holes in my legs from last year’s competitions, so the doctor looked funny at me. But it’s not too bad, I’m used to it.” When asked if he was still going to compete, he laughed and said, “Of course!” Bouffard went on to take an excellent second place, behind Nikolai Kusovlev in first. Dmitriy Grebennikov, also of Russia, came in third for men’s speed.
The Americans overall left a solid mark on the comp, with Kevin Lindlau placing 12th in lead, right behind Nathan Kutcher (CAN) in 11th; Catalina Shirley, Mikayla Tougas, Kendra Stritch and Amity Warme all making semis in lead; Marcus Garcia and Thomas Gehrlein both advancing past semifinals in speed to the finals, reaching the first (quarterfinal) of the three head-to-head rounds there to finish sixth and seventh; and Angela Limbach and Angela Tomczik reaching the quarterfinal stage in women’s speed finals for seventh and eighth.
At the end of the weekend, the AAC reported a live crowd of more than 25,000 altogether, “making the Denver World Cup Finals not only the most watched World Cup Ice Climbing event in the Tour’s history,” a press release read, “but also one of the most well-spectated climbing events of all time.”
With rock climbing finally breaking through into the Olympics, an obvious question is: Is ice climbing far behind? The siblings Carter Stritch and Kendra Stritch—both of whom competed this weekend—are founders of the U.S.A. Ice Climbing Team and have hopes of inclusion in future Winter Games. Well-organized and attended events help strengthen the case. “We’re getting a little more uniform,” Carter says, “so that’s good.”
While Denver concluded the World Cup circuit for the year, most of the ice climbers there this weekend still have their sights on one more big event. The Ice Climbing World Championships will be held in Kirov, Russia, March 8 to 10.
See all results here.